Samsung 980 PRO PCI Express 4.0 NVMe SSD Review

Manufacturer: Samsung Samsung 980 PRO PCI Express 4.0 NVMe SSD Review

Samsung is releasing their first PCI Express 4.0 SSD with the 980 PRO, the latest iteration of the venerable high-end storage line last updated with 2018’s 970 PRO NVMe SSD, which launched alongside the 970 EVO.

We expect high performance from Samsung NVMe drives, with the 970 PRO and EVO drives offering “class-leading overall performance,” according to a certain former storage editor. And with the 980 PRO there is a significant difference in overall makeup – other than the new PCIe Gen4 Samsung-designed controller (Elpis). What is it? The NAND itself, which is described as “3-bit MLC” (TLC).

A Samsung PRO drive with TLC? Yes, the 980 PRO has adopted an EVO-like design, with its TLC NAND and a Turbo Cache 2.0 implementation that uses a portion of available NAND to speed up performance. EVO-like makeup notwithstanding, this is a “pro” drive, with professional-level features including AES 256-bit full disk encryption.

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Optimized for handling data-intensive applications, the 980 PRO is ideal for consumers and professionals who work with 4K and 8K content and play graphics-heavy games. All of the key components, including the custom Elpis controller, V-NAND and DRAM, are completely designed in-house to deliver the full potential of PCIe 4.0. This allows the 980 PRO to provide sequential read and write speeds of up to 7,000 MB/s and 5,000 MB/s respectively, as well as random read and write speeds of up to 1,000K IOPS, making it up to two times faster than PCIe 3.0 SSDs and up to 12.7 times faster than SATA SSDs.

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The New Elpis Controller

As this is a Samsung product, the controller is fully custom – meaning this launches as the only PCIe Gen4 drive on the market that does not implement a Phison controller, PS5016-E16 or otherwise (the new E18 has just been launched). Of course this controller is all new, as Samsung built this product to take advantage of the added bandwidth provided by PCI Express 4.0.

The Elpis controller is able to process 128 I/O (Input and Output) queues simultaneously, about 4 times more than the previous Phoenix controller (32 queues). One single queue can consist of 64 thousand command sets, meaning a total of 128 queues can process over 8 million commands. To satisfy modern needs for high performance without compromising power efficiency, the controller was manufactured using an extremely fine 8nm process.

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If only I could channel my inner Malventano to interpret the significance of these supporting queue numbers! Alas, I can only move on to the next section – and eventually test out the drive, of course.

Intelligent TurboWrite 2.0

The SLC cache from the EVO series makes its way to the PRO line with this release, with the new TurboWrite 2.0 that can dynamically use up to 5x the available NAND capacity of the 970 EVO.

980 PRO features newly enhanced Intelligent TurboWrite 2.0 technology. Compared to the previous Intelligent TurboWrite, Intelligent TurboWrite 2.0 provides up to 5 times larger buffer (TurboWrite region). With the 1TB model, for example, the pre-allocated (default) TurboWrite region is 6GB, and it can also allocate an additional 108GB to be used as a dynamic SLC buffer to increase the total SLC buffer to 114GB. The performance of PCIe 4.0 can be experienced under large workloads without declining performance.

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For our 500GB review sample the default SLC cache is just 4GB, but this can dynamically increase up to 90GB in size, as long as there is sufficient free space on the drive. Performance is significantly lower without this TurboWrite cache, with the 5000 MB/s max sequential writes dropping to just 1000 MB/s without it.

As far as sustained performance is concerned, Samsung states that “in terms of duration, Intelligent TurboWrite 2.0 can be sustained for 26 seconds, approximately 92% longer than the 13 seconds of the previous Intelligent TurboWrite”, which was found in the 970 EVO Plus (and not the 970 PRO).

Enhanced Thermal Solution

Rather than going with a heatsink, as we have seen with some Gen4 drives implementing the first-gen Phison controller, Samsung is making use of a combination of a nickel-coated controller and copper heatspreader found under the bottom label.

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The relatively weaker point of a small M.2 NVMe SSD may be thermal problems. Under extreme workloads, many users worry about performance drops due to heat generation. The 980 PRO mitigates this problem by adopting a heat spreader, a nickel coating on the Elpis controller, and sophisticatedly tuned firmware with advanced Dynamic Thermal Guard (DTG) technology. This trinity of excellent technologies helps prevent overheating by dissipating heat faster to maintain outstanding performance specifications.

Samsung states that with this new design “up to 36% more data (108GB) can be transferred during sequential writes until the DTG point than in the 970 EVO Plus”, with DTG referring to the “Dynamic Thermal Guard” that controls throttling under sustained workloads – depending on the thermal situation.

Performance Benchmarks

Here is what can only be described as a quick, high-level look at the performance of this new 980 PRO SSD. The results presented here require the disclaimer that our sample is 500GB, while the only other PCIe Gen4 drive on hand is a 2TB CORSAIR MP600 (Phison E16). There is a SLIGHT capacity difference, in other words.

PC Perspective Test Platforms
Motherboard ASUS ROG Crosshair VIII Hero Wi-Fi (X570)
BIOS 2206, AGESA V2 PI 1.0.8.0
Memory G.Skill Flare X 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3200 14-14-14-34 @ 1.35V
GPU Palit GeForce GTX 1050 Ti KalmX (Passive)
Storage Samsung SSD 850 EVO 1TB
Power Supply CORSAIR RM1000x 1000W
Operating System Windows 10 64-bit Version 1909, November 2019 Update (Build 18363.592)
Chipset Drivers V2.04.09.131

The second, larger disclaimer is that I am not Allyn Malventano. I don’t even play him on a podcast. I can offer some basic benchmarking since I have have access to a drive, and hopefully provide a bit of data that might help potential buyers.

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In the sequential tests Samsung’s 980 PRO is faster in both the read and write results, and will again draw the reader’s attention to the fact that this Samsung 980 PRO has a capacity of just 500GB – with larger drives generally offering better write speeds (all things being equal).

Moving on to 4K random now, with single and 16-thread performance. 1T first:

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The Samsung 980 PRO offers fantastic read performance here, but can’t best the 2TB MP600 in the write tests (once again, 2TB capacity is quite an advantage).

Now the 4K 16T results:

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Samsung’s superior performance at lower queue depths (QD1, QD2) is on full display here in the read tests, with large gains over the Phison E16-controlled MP600. This Corsair drive does quite well in the write tests, finishing slightly ahead overall.

Next up with have an older test, but Anvil’s Storage Utilities still offers interesting data, with performance under different workloads paired with response time metrics for each.

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Pictured Above: Samsung 980 PRO Results

The 980 PRO offers outstanding performance, though it’s worth noting that write performance (influenced no doubt by the massive 4x capacity advantage) is occasionally higher with the MP600.

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Pictured Above: Corsair MP600 Results

And now for a look at a sustained linear transfer, generated using AIDA64’s Disk Benchmark. The Samsung 980 PRO is first:

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With average sustained performance of 5656.8 MB/s in the lengthy linear read test, we see a drive that is certainly capable of faster speeds than an SSD implementing Phison’s E16 controller, which is next:

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Here the MP600 manages an average of 2863.8 MB/s in this sustained test. Just from this result we can safely determine that, depending on the workload, the Samsung 980 PRO is capable of nearly doubling the performance of our CORSAIR MP600 drive.

Conclusion

Samsung’s new 980 PRO offers transfer speeds far beyond existing PCIe Gen4 drives, pushing sequential transfer speeds very close to the rated 7000 MB/s (6900 MB/s for this 500GB variant). And while this represents a major leap over the ~5000 MB/s of Phison-powered Gen4 NVMe options on the current market, Samsung does face some stiff competition this generation with the upcoming Phison E18 controller found in the Sabrent Rocket 4 Plus.

In our quick testing the Samsung 980 PRO offered excellent performance, though it is challenging to really push an SSD with this level of throughput capability outside of synthetic benchmarks. How many real-world scenarios can handle transfer speeds in excess of 6700 MB/s? Once a significant bottleneck, storage is evolving quickly, though very few products exist that can leverage the capabilities of modern standards.

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The most interesting aspect of the 980 PRO – in this author’s opinion – is the adoption of the design methodology previously reserved for Samsung’s consumer EVO SSD lineup. Gone is the 2-bit MLC, with 3-bit NAND (usually called TLC, but referred to as 3-bit MLC in Samsung’s documentation for the 980 PRO) finding its way into a PRO drive for the first time.

Along with this change to TLC comes the inclusion of SLC caching, with the new TurboWrite 2.0 implemented here offering larger, dynamically-allocated areas compared to the 970 EVO, in addition to static SLC cache. The controller is new, of course, with Samsung’s own 8nm Elpis controller making use of both the above-mentioned 6th gen V-NAND 3-bit MLC and between 512MB and 2GB of LPDDR4 DRAM cache memory, depending on drive capacity.

Samsung is releasing the 980 PRO in 250GB, 500GB, and 1TB capacities, with a 2TB variant on the way as well. As to pricing, the 980 PRO MSRPs start at $89.99 for the 250GB model, $149.99 for the 500GB model, and $229.99 for the 1TB model (2TB pricing/availability TBA).

Overall this is an impressive entry into the PCI-E 4.0 realm for Samsung, with the move to 3-bit NAND, however logical, a little disappointing for a product with the PRO name. We’re living in a TLC/QLC world now, and Samsung’s adoption of 3-bit NAND for their flagship likely signals the end of 2-bit MLC in consumer drives.

Review Disclosures

This disclosure statement covers the way the product being reviewed was obtained and the relationship between the product's manufacturer and PC Perspective.

How Product Was Obtained

The drive is on loan from Samsung for the purpose of this review.

What Happens To Product After Review

The drive remains the property of Samsung but will be on extended loan to PC Perspective for the purpose of future testing and product comparisons.

Company Involvement

Samsung provided the product sample and technical brief to PC Perspective but had no control over the content of the review and was not consulted prior to publication.

PC Perspective Compensation

Neither PC Perspective nor any of its staff were paid or compensated in any way by Samsung for this review.

Advertising Disclosure

Samsung has not purchased advertising at PC Perspective during the past twelve months.

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About The Author

Sebastian Peak

Editor-in-Chief at PC Perspective. Writer of computer stuff, vintage PC nerd, and full-time dad. Still in search of the perfect smartphone. In his nonexistent spare time Sebastian's hobbies include hi-fi audio, guitars, and road bikes. Currently investigating time travel.

7 Comments

  1. C,ram

    I would be happy to sacrifice capacity for full time, full drive SLC mode.
    They talked about this in the past, did they ever allow it?

    Reply
    • razor512

      I would also like to see a pure SLC mode. It would be good to see hoe the drive performs if it is not trying to use controller resources to simultaneously dump some that data to the TLC NAND which takes more work than dumping to MLC NAND.
      They should offer a way to make it into a 320GB drive that dedicates 100% of its resources to SLC management. We may be able to saturate the PCIe 4.0 x4 bus.

      Reply
  2. willmore

    Hard pass. That’s an EVO drive, not a PRO. It’s not worth PRO price.

    Reply
  3. razor512

    The 980 Pro is a bit of a letdown for me, the move to TLC NAND and wide swings in performance is just bad. When the SLC cache is used, it is faster than the 970 Pro by a decent margin, but once that cache is exhausted, it is slower than even the 960 Pro.

    PS the dynamic allocation of additional NAND to use in SLC mode only works when you have ample free space, thus you basically have to buy a 1TB model but treat it as if it were a 480GB model.

    The reduced endurance rating due to the TLC NAND, also pushes the SSD more towards the gaming crowd and away from the content creation and other more professional locations, especially if you want to use it as a drive wor working with large files or raw video where you need those fast transfer rates.

    Beyond that, it is priced like the 970 Pro, but has a feature set of the evo drives which have historically been significantly cheaper.

    It is like Samsung took the 980 Evo, and decided to test the waters of if they can massively boost the profit margin and sell it at the pro price point.

    Reply
    • willmore

      Exactly. It really seems like they crossed product lines with this device.

      For this class of device (expected performance and acceptable price), the small increase in storage you get from moving from 2 bit per cell to 3 bit per cell can’t be justified due to the performance and indurance loss. They really needed to stay with MLC for this product line.

      An MLC drive with SLC caching would be what I would have expected here. That would have allowed them to saturate the link when in SLC mode and to keep up the IOPS values in other cases. The additional benefit of decent drive longevity would also be useful.

      Let’s be clear, these drives come at a 3x or more premium over 4x PCI-E 3.0 TLC drives. 2x or more over 4x PCI-E 4.0 TLC drives from other manufacturers. That’s a lot to ask for a small improvement in sequential read/write rates.

      Reply
      • Sebastian Peak

        Pricing is not 2x to 3x that of other PCI-E 4.0 options, regardless of NAND. The base price for a 500GB (the size I reviewed) Gen4 SSD is $99, with Samsung’s $149 representing a 1.5x increase over this. The average price is $119, making Samsung’s a 1.25x increase.

        It’s the fastest SSD currently available. There is often a premium associated with the best performance. I would love to see MLC at the same price, but show me any consumer PCI-E 4.0 SSD using MLC. (They are all using TLC.)

        Reply
        • razor512

          Agreed on it being the current fastest SSD for the money, but due to how it functions, it is easy to extrapolate how it would perform if it were an MLC SSD if you consider the 970 pro vs the 970 evo.

          Traditionally the pro series from Samsung means getting an SSD that had high quality MLC NAND where the controller is the bottleneck instead of the NAND. This often meant that dirty NAND that had not been trimmed yet, could still perform at the advertised speeds (at least on workloads that don’t rely on the highest possible IOPS).

          With the move to TLC, the 980 pro has NAND that when the SLC allocated is exhausted, the drive performs slower than even the 960 Pro.
          Beyond that, you lose one of the key features of the pro series, which is being able to hit the advertised speeds and performance consistency, even when the drive is almost completely filled. TLC drives struggle in this area as there is less NAND available to use in SLC mode, and for long heavy workloads, the SLC becomes largely useless.

          Overall, while it is a fast SSD, people are just disappointed at seeing what it could be. they could have taken the 970 Pro, and swapped the controller with their newer one to take advantage of PCIe 4.0.

          Reply

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